Ritual, habit, routine. Why brands should get the habits habit.

As we reach (hopefully) the beginning of the end of COVID restrictions, everywhere you look, people are beginning to embrace a return to missed routines and rituals we took for granted.

Pub gardens are full, gym treadmills are whirring again, parents are cheering their children at football touchlines, families are getting together again and there’s a gradual creep back into offices. We’re relishing what was once routine because Covid has shown us, simply by taking it away, how much the real fabric of our lives is made up of perfectly ordinary everyday habits, routines and rituals. Put simply, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

This is worth thinking about if you’re responsible for marketing a brand. You may be familiar with Havas Research telling us that if 80% of brands disappeared overnight, no one would care. At first glance, this might tempt you into making sure you’re one of the 20%. However, our Covid experience serves to show this could be counter-productive.

Firstly, because it pays to have a healthy disregard for the claims people make in research. Just as few would have articulated how important a pint with a friend was before it was taken from them, it’s unlikely they can really predict how they’ll feel if the brands they take for granted disappeared. Years ago, Heinz Salad Cream was about to be de-listed, and the very threat of it disappearing in an ad campaign was enough to get people who hadn’t thought about the brand in years buying it again in enough numbers to save it.

Secondly, we often forget that brands were invented to help people NOT to think, but to simplify choices. Just as cowboys branded cows so they could easily tell which was which, modern branding helps us find something that suits our needs with minimal effort, so we can worry about the mortgage, what to watch on telly or remember if this was a Zoom or Teams meeting.

Finally, that 80-20% mirrors the work done by Byron Sharpe at the Ehrenberg Bass Institute on the make-up of the buyers of nearly every brand. Roughly 80% of a brands buyers’ are ‘light buyers’ who don’t buy very often and don’t care that much, yet there are simply so many of them, they account for around half of a brand’s sales and are its source of future growth.

In other words, future brand success depends on people who don’t want to think about it. So to stop this promiscuous lot buying something else, it’s easier to work with them and help them NOT to.

Which brings us back to ritual, habit and routine.

Human beings are their habits. We develop them, along with rituals and routines to simplify overcomplicated lives, they are how we get through everyday without mental overload:

We tend to have our main meal on an evening.

We crave the first cup of tea in the morning.

We meet for a ‘coffee’.

We have pre-match pints and half time pies.

We shake hands to signify we’re pleased to meet someone.

We drive on the left hand side of the road so we all don’t crash.

I phone my Mum every Sunday at 4 so I don’t forget.

I know Christmas is December the 25th and struggle to get my head around why Easter changes every year.

Just as we couldn’t live without routine and rituals, the brands that are part of them may not rock our world, but because they simplify our world and help us think less, we would miss them if they disappeared.

So it follows that maybe more brands should help people think less and celebrate their modest place in the universe, and put habits and rituals at the centre of marketing more. Not just the ‘everyday’ brands, maybe the more high interest ones too. Working with the real part of life that they fit into, or creating new traditions and rituals themselves.

It might save many from the worrying hubris of making everything about ‘purpose’. This, of course, matters for some categories. No car brand can escape having an authentic position on sustainability, but I’d be concerned if my favourite jam brand waded into Black Lives Matter.

It’s great brands are taking more responsibility for the world around them, but too often they forget why people buy them. I buy jam because of the price, taste and the quality of ingredients, its position on gender assignment really doesn’t come into it.

So yes, don’t believe the hype. Just as people can’t tell the truth on the things they’ll miss until they actually disappear, just because they say they’ll buy brands that are more progressive, with better values, I’d take it with a pinch of salt. If you don’t believe me, check if Amazons or Facebook’s profits have gone down. Didn’t think so.

Instead, consider that the deeper the habit, the less likely people, who naturally take the path of least resistance, will bother to change it. We all know examples from what we buy and what we’ve seen, yet this very effective strategy seems to be out of vogue.

Coke invented the modern image of Santa Claus and their Christmas truck became a signifier that ‘The Holidays are Coming’.

Stella Artois associated themselves with the annual Queens tennis tournament for years.

The Oxo family made the brand synonymous with the family meal.

IRN- BRU is the mythical hangover cure, while Vodka and Red Bull was long the mythical kick off to an epic night.

Magners kicked off exponential growth by building the ice in glass ritual, to overcome the convention of ‘first pint refreshment’.

Nike first experienced exponential growth by joining America in it’s growing jogging habit.

Cadbury’s Crème Egg was arguably at it’s best with ‘How to Do You Eat Yours’ and is only available between Christmas and Easter.

We’ve had Orange Wednesdays.

We had Crunchy Nut Cornflakes encouraging us to ‘get home and have some’.

We thanked Crunchie it was Friday.

Guinness has made waiting a virtue.

Orangina asked you to ‘Shake the Bottle to Wake the Drink’.

Greggs buyers live in hope they time a visit for when the sausage rolls are fresh out of the oven.

Strip away Snickers ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’ and it’s really about making sure you have something to fill you up in between meals.

So, in conclusion, when it comes to research, when someone says they don’t care about something, be that a routine or even your brand, don’t take their word for it, just be honest with yourself what your brands role is. You might find that embracing a more modest role in the world to be the pathway to greater growth. Even if you believe you should be in the 20% of brands people say they care about, when owning ritual, moment or habit is proven to be so effective, yet isn’t used nearly enough these days, working with the flows of real life could the most disruptive and profitable strategy you ever chose.

About the author:

Andrew Hovells is the Strategy Director at CreativeRace. He has 21 years of experience in developing integrated strategy across the entire customer journey, from TV advertising to performance media, from shopper marketing to performance digital. He’s worked on local and global campaigns for a wide range of brands including Castrol, Bentley, New Balance, ghd, Pepsi, Wm Morrison, Yorkshire Tea and Greggs.

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